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Bob Brady’s political guru, Ken Smukler, sentenced to 18 months in prison for campaign finance crimes

Smukler sniffled back tears, as he stood before U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois. He said he regretted how often he “gamed” the Federal Election Commission throughout his career and described himself as now “toxic” in the political consultant business.

Ken Smukler, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's top political strategist, arrives at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on Friday for sentencing on charges including coordinating multiple unlawful contribution for candidates on Friday, May 3, 2019. Smukler was convicted last year of helping to coordinate what prosecutors have described as an illegal $90,000 payoff to encourage Brady's 2012 primary challenger to drop out of the race.
Ken Smukler, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's top political strategist, arrives at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on Friday for sentencing on charges including coordinating multiple unlawful contribution for candidates on Friday, May 3, 2019. Smukler was convicted last year of helping to coordinate what prosecutors have described as an illegal $90,000 payoff to encourage Brady's 2012 primary challenger to drop out of the race.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s top political strategist, Ken Smukler, was sentenced to a year and a half in federal prison Friday for repeatedly flouting campaign-finance laws to give his clients an edge in their congressional races.

As he stood in a Philadelphia courtroom, the 58-year-old Villanova lawyer sniffled and tearfully said he regretted how often he had “gamed” the Federal Election Commission throughout his career and now had become “toxic” in the political consultant business.

“I have shown a callous disregard for the [FEC], a federal agency that is underfunded and totally unequipped” to monitor the millions that flow through modern election campaigns, Smukler told U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois. “I had become someone willing to scam the system to achieve my goals.”

Notably absent from the hearing on Friday were the two candidates for whom Smukler committed his crimes.

One, Brady, narrowly avoided being charged as part of the Justice Department investigation into a $90,000 payoff Smukler helped coordinate to persuade the congressman’s 2012 primary challenger to withdraw.

The other, former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies, turned government witness at Smukler’s trial and testified against her former campaign manager under a grant of immunity from prosecution.

Still, the presence of both former lawmakers hung over Friday’s proceedings.

Brady, who remains chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, joined dozens of others in writing letters to the judge that vouched for Smukler’s character, pleaded for leniency, and recounted instances where he used his contacts in politics and the media to help others.

Such letters are routine in sentencings and are typically considered public records. But after The Inquirer requested their release, DuBois ordered them sealed, without discussion, at the urging of Smukler’s lawyers. The defense contended there was a privacy issue because they contained the addresses of the letter writers.

The prosecutor in Smukler’s case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric L. Gibson, balked at what he sarcastically described as Brady’s “profound act of public courage” in writing a confidential letter to the judge but not showing up for Friday’s proceedings.

He quoted from the congressman’s missive, citing an acknowledgment by Brady that he had “written many letters like this for friends of mine who have found themselves in the circumstances Kenny now finds himself in.”

“Smukler and consultants like him — willing to flout the rules and win at all costs — provide insulation for the more ethically challenged candidates,” Gibson told the court. “Smukler has successfully used his role to get his candidates get-out-of-jail-free cards, and he wears that as a badge of honor.”

Brady, in an interview before the hearing, said he no longer had a copy of his letter to DuBois but said it recounted several projects Smukler helped bring to Philadelphia over the years, including the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the NFL draft and the Dad Vail Regatta.

“I just hate to see this guy go away," the former congressman said. "It’s such a shame.”

It could have been far worse. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of between four and six years. Prosecutors had asked for six to eight.

In explaining his sentence, DuBois cited emotional appeals from Smukler’s family and the number of prominent individuals who had written to extol the accomplishments of Smukler’s career — a list that included talk-show host and columnist Michael Smerconish, media publisher Larry Platt, Philadelphia Gay News founder Mark Segal, and Gregory Moore, executive director of the NAACP National Voter Fund.

The judge also ordered Smukler to pay a $75,000 fine and serve one year of probation upon his release from prison. He allowed him to remain free on bail and surrender one day next month.

Whether Friday’s sentence will end Smukler’s three-decade career in Democratic politics remains to be seen. (According to a report probation officers filed with the court, Smukler said that if DuBois had granted him probation, he planned to work for “the other side” in the 2020 campaign. He didn’t elaborate.)

A political brawler who got his start serving as press secretary to Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. in his 1987 reelection campaign, Smukler quickly cemented himself as one of the city’s foremost political operatives.

He helped elect dozens of Democratic candidates to city, state and federal office, including Margolies in her first run for Congress in 1992. After meeting Brady in 2006, he oversaw the congressman’s political messaging and strategy for more than a decade.

Smukler had survived brushes with campaign-finance violations before. Brady fired him from his failed bid to become mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, after The Inquirer reported that Smukler played a role in encouraging the formation of several independent expenditure groups — which are supposed to operate independently of any campaign — to attack Brady’s then-rival, Tom Knox.

But he was back by Brady’s side for the congressman’s next reelection drive.

Smukler’s skill at spin and messaging finally failed him last year — this time before a federal jury.

Jurors ultimately concluded that Smukler had illegally tapped funds earmarked for the general election during Margolies’ 2014 primary campaign — a brutal and expensive four-way race to represent a district covering parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

Then, after Margolies lost the primary election to Brendan Boyle, Smukler solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations to repay the general election donors whose money had been misspent.

He recruited straw donors, including Margolies herself, to hide the source of those funds. Margolies told jurors that Smukler had assured her she wasn’t doing anything illegal.

Brady, too, has maintained there was nothing illegal about Smukler’s role in buying off the congressman’s 2012 primary challenger, Jimmie Moore, a former Philadelphia Municipal Court judge.

But jurors rejected Smukler’s characterization that the $90,000 Moore received from Brady’s campaign was a legitimate campaign expense to buy, among other things, exclusive rights to a poll Moore had commissioned before dropping out.

On Friday, Smukler’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle, again raised the question he repeated throughout the trial: If Brady’s payments to Moore were illegal, why wasn’t the congressman charged as well?

“If it wasn’t worthy of charging the individual whose idea it was, how could it be the type of crime that’s worthy of sending [Smukler] to prison?” McMonagle asked. “You can’t with intellectual honesty say, ‘Give Brady a pass’ … and in the same breath say, ‘Send [Smukler] to prison.’”

Prosecutors have repeatedly declined to discuss that choice, though in court filings they have accused Brady — without identifying him by name — of conspiring alongside Smukler, Moore, and a second aide, Donald “D.A.” Jones.

The decision not to charge Brady came after several rounds of intense lobbying in 2017 by Brady’s legal team with top Justice Department officials in Washington, according to sources familiar with those negotiations who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Jones, who testified against Smukler at trial, is awaiting sentencing for his role in the scheme and another unrelated crime in which he confessed to illegally lobbying members of Congress on behalf of a Missouri-based nonprofit.

Moore and his campaign manager, Carolyn Cavaness, also pleaded guilty and struck cooperation deals with prosecutors. No dates have been set for their sentencings.

As for Smukler, McMonagle described him as a “fallen human being” who has now lost his home, his profession, and his good name.

“He’s destroyed,” the lawyer said. “He’s laid down.”

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.